The confusion of tongues — the fragmentation of human languages — is described in the Bible’s Book of Genesis as a result of the construction of the Tower of Babel. The roots of this confusion may be open to question, but not the fact that it plays out daily in scenes large and small, all over the world. Most are not as funny as this video. When one doesn’t understand the sounds coming from another’s mouth, it is as though a heavy curtain is drawn, muffling sound and light, obscuring everything about that person that makes them human: their culture, their values, their sense of humor, their desires and loves and disappointments.
Consider this video illustrating the difficulties of “The Italian man who went to Malta“:
I found myself some years ago not quite in a hotel in Malta, but in the courtyard of a youth hostel in southern Italy. I was with a crowd of other backpackers who, having waited for the grounds to be opened, looked forward to a refreshing shower. It was at the end of a long, dry, hot afternoon in Tuscany, the kind of afternoon that made us feel like we’d been cooking in a Dutch oven. Inside, at the end of a long hallway that led to the showers, stood a middle-aged Italian man with a bulbous nose handing out towels. He spoke only Italian. There was a sign on the wall behind him: “caldo” with an arrow pointing to the right and “freddo” with an arrow to the left. We each took a towel and went left or right.
After the shower I came out to find two young Germans yelling at the man, who seemed bewildered.
“Kalt!” he yelled after them as they stalked off. “Caldo!”
As I speak some Italian and a smattering of German, I understood enough to know that the Germans were angry because they thought they had been directed to the hot shower, but they ended up in the cold shower.
“Kalt,” he said to me with a shrug. “Caldo. Cold.”
“No,” I said to him in Italian. “In inglese, caldo vuol dire ‘hot.’ Freddo vuol dire ‘cold,’ o kalt.” Meaning: the English translation of ‘caldo’ is not ‘cold’ even though they sound the same– it’s hot.
Lo these many years later I still remember the expression of awe, surprise, confusion and then clarity which spread across his face like the sunlight outside in the courtyard, as it dawned on him that the word meant the opposite of what he had thought. For how many months or years had he been directing travelers to the wrong shower?
I often think when I hear Chinese or Arabic or some other language about which I have no inkling, that we in our different cocoons stand in those lines, waiting to be directed by a man who doesn’t speak our language, day after day, week after week, year after year, to the wrong place. You might say that’s a big part of what we do here at dotSUB: making it possible for men and women from Malta to the Middle East, from China to Chile to get into the right line and share their stories in a way that everyone can understand. Stories of bankers to the poor and tweets for the masses, where you can learn about personalized learning and just about everything in between.